< Biblical Reader

 

 

The Non-Christian and Anti-cosmic Roots of Amillennialism

Sam A. Smith

 

         As the church expanded into the Greek and Roman world Christianity was quickly transformed from a Jewish-centered religion into a Grecianized and anti-cosmic religion. Of course the Bible takes a very positive view of the natural (physical) world, at least in regard to both its origin and its future. God declared his creation to be “good” (Gen. 1:31). The Old Testament is clearly pro-cosmic, in that it views the natural world as created for and suited to the fulfillment of the eternal promises and purposes of God for man. The New Testament does not differ from this view, though it does acknowledge the need for redemption and restoration of the physical world in order to completely ameliorate the effects of sin and the curse brought upon the earth because of sin. Both the gospels and the book of Revelation picture Christ as returning to the earth to establish his eternal kingdom and to rule, and Revelation describes the heavenly city as descending to rest eternally upon the restored earth (Rev. 21:1-4). Unfortunately, some have failed to make a distinction between the material world and the powers that presently influence the world. According to the New Testament, the world is now under the sway—and to some degree, the dominion—of the powers of darkness (Rom. 8:18-23). Christ’s atoning sacrifice has already provided the basis for the defeat of these powers and for the redemption of believing men and women, and of the material creation itself, but that redemption has yet to be applied to the physical creation; according to the Bible, it will be applied when Christ returns (Rom. 8:18-25). Hence, while the world system is evil, the natural realm itself is not intrinsically evil; rather, it suffers the effects of man’s sin. While the Bible recognizes that the present state of life in this world is made difficult by the presence of sin, that state is viewed as a temporary condition. The simple truth is that the Bible nowhere promotes an anti-cosmic worldview.

 

         Owing to the influence of Platonism and Gnosticism in the early centuries of the church between the 2nd and 5th centuries, the gospel was reshaped according to the anti-cosmic belief that the material creation is inherently flawed and thus cannot be made suitable for any ideal purpose. This shift in worldview profoundly impacted every area of theology, especially the doctrines concerning the nature of God, Christ, original sin and salvation, and the nature of the unfolding kingdom of God (eschatology); also it directly or indirectly gave rise to virtually all of the great theological disputes of the first four centuries of the church. While the early church eventually resolved most of the difficulties with respect to the nature of God, and original sin and salvation, eschatology fell victim to anti-cosmic dualism. The interplay between Christianity, Platonism, Stoicism, Gnosticism, and the early doctrinal deviations from the first century apostolic faith are difficult to unravel. However, there can be no doubt that Platonism and Gnosticism in their various forms had a significant and lasting effect on Christian theology—principally, the effect of displacing revealed religion (disclosed by God to man) with philosophy (reasoned from man to man), particularly as it relates to our understanding of the kingdom of God. Examples of the displacement of biblical revelation by philosophy can be seen in such figures as Basilides, Marcion, Valentinus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and eventually, Augustine (though these figures had sharp theological disagreements among themselves). Augustine, owing to his stature in church history, is responsible for codifying in the western church the practice of “spiritualized” (allegorical) interpretation of eschatological prophecy, with the aim being to provide biblical support for the view that the kingdom of God is essentially spiritual (i.e., supernatural as opposed to physical) and church-centered rather than Jewish-centered. [The replacement of Israel by the church was an essential stepping-stone in the development of amillennialism. This scheme is generally referred to as “replacement theology.” Replacement theology developed very early and can be seen in the in the writings of Justin Martyr (see note below) in the mid-second century—even though Justin’s position on the kingdom remained solidly premillennial.]

 

The background of “Christian” anti-cosmic worldviews in the early church

 

         Gnosticism derived its cosmology and ontology from Platonism, and both Platonism and Gnosticism viewed the material world as intrinsically flawed. As such, both Platonists and Gnostics conceived of the world as a place to be delivered from (through contemplation for the Platonist, and by the keys of gnosis for the Gnostic); neither worldview could conceive of the physical realm as a suitable medium for anything “ideal” (such as the kingdom of God). So, for both Platonists and Gnostics (and increasingly for others whom they influenced), the notion of a literal, physical kingdom of God on earth seemed quite absurd. In practical terms, any anti-cosmic worldview is inherently incompatible with premillennialism; which is why Gnosticism, in bloc, and eventually most of the remainder of the church, which had increasingly fallen under the influence of Platonism, came to deny the literal premillennial statements of the Bible. [For further discussion of the biblical basis of premillennialism see, “The Biblical Basis of Premillennialism,” or What the Bible Says about the Future, by the author. For information on obtaining materials by the author, see the note at the end of this monograph.] This must have posed somewhat of a dilemma in the earliest stages, since the biblical statements, taken at face value, unequivocally teach a premillennial return of Christ and subsequent physical (geopolitical) kingdom (Zech 14; Matt. 24-25; Rev. 19:11-20:4). However, with the increasing acceptance of allegorical interpretation, it became easier to deny premillennialism and to readjust the message of the Bible through the use of allegorization. The Gnostics used allegorization in developing their particular cultic theology, and those who debated them (Clement, Origen, and others) increasingly relied on philosophical apologetics, which often led to further allegorization of Scripture such that both positions moved further away from the actual statements of the Bible and closer to philosophizing, allegory, and myth. While premillennialism can be found in some of the church fathers, the displacement of premillennialism by amillennialism was early, beginning in earnest in the early second century. [Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho  (chapters LXXX-LXXXI) provides an excellent example of premillennialism in the early to mid-second century—though Justin had come to accept replacement theology, which is a precursory step in the direction of amillennialism (see chapters CXIX-CXX and CXXXV). As such, Justin’s theology is an example of the transition that took place in the early second century from biblical premillennialism, to replacement premillennialism, to replacement amillennialism (classic amillennialism).]

 

Basic tenets of Gnosticism

            Since Gnosticism is less well understood than Platonism, it might be helpful to review some of its basic tenets. Early Gnosticism was, essentially, an adaptation of Platonic metaphysics (cosmology and ontology) that integrated the dualism of Platonism with Christian themes (primarily, transcendence and salvation). Unlike Platonism, Gnosticism accepted the Jewish/Christian conception of a transcendent God. Thus while Gnosticism shared much of Platonism’s mythical cosmology and dualism, it represents a significant religious/Christian adaptation of those ideas. [While there has been much discussion on the origin of Gnosticism, and whether there was a pre-Christian form of Gnosticism, the earliest Gnostic teachings appear to draw heavily on Old and New Testament characters, places, events, and ideas, and thus would be difficult to explain apart from Christianity. On this point see: A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism, by Simone Pétrement.]

 

The determinative feature of Gnosticism is the belief that the God of the Old Testament (Yahweh, or “Jehovah”) is not the true (holy and eternal) God, but rather a creature (a powerful, angelic-like being), whom the Gnostics referred to generically as the “Demiurge,” or personally by the names “Ialtabaoth,” or “Sakla[s]”). The Gnostics reasoned that since the world is flawed, the true God could not have created it. They also viewed the “God” of the Old Testament as inferior in character to the Father of Christ in the New Testament. We see in this the earliest examples of the reinterpretation (largely a dismissal) of the Old Testament in light of what was thought (by the Gnostics) to be a later, superior understanding of truth—a process that, quite interestingly, remains as one of the core hermeneutical processes of amillennialism today—that is, the tendency to conform older scriptures to a particularly narrow view of later scriptures. For example, see A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times, by Kim Riddlebarger (written from the amillennial perspective), which provides a convenient compendium of contemporary amillennial thought. Riddlebarger states (p. 37): “…the Old Testament prophets and writers spoke of the glories of the coming messianic age in terms of their own premessianic age. They referred to the nation of Israel, the temple, the Davidic throne, and so on. These all reflect the language, history, and experience of the people to whom these promises were originally given. But eschatological themes are reinterpreted in the New Testament, where we are told that these Old Testament images are types and shadows of the glorious realities that are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. According to amillenarians, this means that Jesus Christ is the true Israel.” As incredible as it might sound, Riddlebarger acknowledges (p. 51) that reformed theologians are “concerned about the dispensational tendency to interpret the New Testament in light of the Old….” What a novelty these dispensationalists (read: premillennialists) are guilty of—actually attempting to interpret the New Testament in light of the Old Testament! Amillennialists are forced to reinterpret the Old Testament in light of their particularly narrow view of the New Testament gospels, and they look with concern upon anyone who might actually attempt to understand the New Testament in the light of the Old Testament. This is, of course, a biblical theology turned upside-down; and it is a process that appears to have gotten much of its initial traction from the philosophical/theological “soup” of the second century A.D. in which Gnosticism developed.

 

Whether Gnosticism produced this inversion in biblical theology or was simply a co-inheritor is unclear; but one thing is clear: reversal of the determinative/dependant relationship between the Old and New Testaments, as seen in Gnosticism and amillennialism, is highly destructive both to biblical theology and to our notion of biblical inspiration and canonicity. After all, the basis for the acceptance of the New Testament books as inspired documents was that they teach (at face value) the same doctrines as the Old Testament—but how can that be if the Old Testament must be allegorized to conform to the teachings of the New Testament? (For additional discussion of the determinative/dependent relationship between the Old and New Testaments see, “How the Amillennial Conception of the Kingdom is Developed,” by the author.)

 

         The Gnostics believed that the true God is higher and unknown to the God of the Jews—who in his ignorance of the true God believes himself to be the highest of powers and worthy of all worship. For the most part it seems that the Gnostics viewed Yahweh not as evil, but as acting ignorantly (though some sects of Gnostics undoubtedly did view him as having malevolent tendencies). Perhaps the Gnostics arrived at this worldview through a rejection of original sin. That is, in failing to understand, or accept the Old Testament account of the fall of man and its effects upon the world, they thus attributed the failure in creation to the Creator himself. The skids of this error were already greased by the fact that the Gnostics saw what they thought was a disparity between the New Testament ideal of the Father of Christ, and what appeared to them to be the inferior Deity of the Old Testament. Therefore, they felt justified in rejecting the theology of the Old Testament. Whatever the impetuous for the origin of Gnosticism might be, it is clear that Platonism was the template for the Gnostic worldview, and it is generally acknowledged that the Gnostic ideas regarding creation were largely adapted from Plato’s mythical account in Timaeus. The Gnostics developed an elaborate mythology to elucidate and support their views. They were forced to do so because their doctrines simply could not be supported through any normal understanding of the Bible. Hence, the Gnostics were among the first within professed Christianity to “spiritualize” (allegorize) the Christian Scriptures, and they eventually developed their own corpus of cultic literature to support their beliefs. They engaged in the wholesale allegorization of the New Testament, and to the extent that they used the Old Testament (which was little), they allegorized that too. (Since the Gnostics viewed the Old Testament as representing the religion of the Demiurge—i.e., a false religion—they mostly ignored it, except for the creation account, a few details of which they adapted to their mythical cosmology.) [For those who may be less familiar with Gnosticism, documents like The Gospel of Thomas that are currently being popularized in modern religious fiction, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, are for the most part, Gnostic writings that were rejected by the early church because their historical and theological content is incompatible with the Bible. In every case, these writings are pseudepigraphal—that is, they were not written by the people whose names they bear, or at the time claimed. They were simply forgeries written from the second century on, fabricated to support a Gnostic worldview which could not be supported directly from the Bible. (Unlike some other heresies, which simply misinterpreted the Bible, Gnosticism’s cosmology and theology was so far removed from anything biblical that they literally needed to write their own scriptures, even if it meant forging them.]

 

         Dualism is fundamental to Gnosticism. Dualism proceeds naturally from an anti-cosmic worldview. If the natural realm is flawed, it is clear that the true God could neither be its creator, nor could he be joined with the physical world. Thus, Gnostics not only denied that the true God made the world; they also denied the personal union of the divine and human natures in Christ (i.e., that he was both God and man in one person). There were many flavors of Gnosticism. Some Gnostics held that Christ wasn’t a man at all, but that he only appeared to be human (a sort of phantasm); some held that he wasn’t God at all, that he was only a man. Still others held that Jesus was a man and that the “Christ Spirit” rested upon him only temporarily, but was never joined to him personally (i.e., hypostatically—constituting a singular person). In all cases, however, the Gnostics denied that Christ, as God in the flesh, died on the cross. Actually, the Gnostics did not believe in the absolute deity of Christ as taught in the New Testament. To the Gnostics, Christ was a created heavenly being—not an eternal member of the Godhead. Since the Gnostics did not accept the Bible’s teaching concerning original sin, they saw no need for atonement; to them, the Son was a messenger from the spiritual realm beyond and above that of the “God” of the Old Testament. He was a messenger sent by the true God to reveal the knowledge of the truth (the gnosis) to those capable of receiving it, that men have a spark of the divine within them that, with the proper knowledge (the gnosis), can return to the realm for which it was originally created. (The Gnostics believed that the soul of man originated in a higher realm created by the true God, but became trapped in the physical realm when the lower world was created by some of the creatures emanated {directly or indirectly} from God.) Those who do not, or cannot receive this knowledge are doomed to remain trapped in this physical realm through perpetual reincarnations. Gnostic mythology, which denies that Christ died on the cross, sometimes describes him as living out his life elsewhere, but this mythology was not based upon any historical information. It was developed only to support Gnostic dualism, which could not accept the incarnation, or substitutionary atonement upon the cross.

 

         The mythology that was developed by the Gnostics was rich and varied. For instance, some Gnostics taught that Yahweh (or some of his inferior powers) had relations with Eve and fathered Cain and Abel. (Some Gnostic accounts present a picture of a brutal rape of Eve by one or more of these powers.)  There was a widespread belief among Gnostics that only Seth was the son of Adam (or that only Seth was born after the pattern of the ideal, or heavenly Seth—an ideal man in the heavens), and they viewed only the descendants of Seth as being capable of receiving the gnosis (the true knowledge that provides the keys to passing the gatekeepers of the lower realms and ascending to the highest heaven at death). Of course, Gnostics viewed themselves as being “Sethites.” (This is, quite obviously, a form of religiously sanctioned racism.) They held that the tree of life was a trap placed in the Garden by Yahweh to keep men trapped in the material world, and that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil held the means of escaping this entrapment. Consequently, the serpent that tempted Eve to partake of the forbidden fruit was actually an agent of good—according to The Secret Book of John, which presents a typical Gnostic account of creation. (Interestingly, both Freemasonry and Mormonism incorporate the Gnostic idea that an individual must possess certain secret knowledge to pass the gates of the lower realms in order to ascend to the highest heaven upon death.)

 

         One might ask why the Gnostics drew upon the Old Testament at all, since their theology obviously doesn’t square with the Old Testament Scriptures. The answer would seem to be that while they viewed the Old Testament as having been written from the perspective of the false religion of the Demiurge, it was still the foundation of Christianity of which they viewed themselves as being a part. In other words, they were “stuck” with the Old Testament. Christianity is inseparable from the Old Testament, and the Gnostics needed a connection to Christianity to validate their own religious standing. (Essentially, Gnosticism co-opted Christianity in its effort to forge a new religion that was incompatible with both the Old and New Testament Scriptures.)  So rather than a complete denial of the Old Testament, they chose to reinterpret selected portions of it through allegorization according to their own mythology; the rest (in fact most of the Old Testament), they simply dismissed as the false religion of the Jews. (Actually some Gnostic sects did not include the Old Testament in their canon of scriptures.)

 

         Since the Gnostics viewed the God of the Old Testament as inferior, and ignorantly self-serving, they viewed the Jews as purveyors of false religion, which actually did harm by concealing the truth about the true God and the true nature of the material world. Hence, Gnosticism fostered an early anti-Jewish attitude. The futuristic eschatology of the Old Testament (repeated in the book of Revelation), which was characterized as both physical and Jewish-centered, was discarded in favor of “realized personal eschatology” which the individual enters into both when he comes into possession of the gnosis, and at death—when he can use the keys of gnosis to escape the physical realm and return to the realm for which his soul was created. In fact, as the notion of realized personal eschatology gained acceptance in the early church, we see a diminished emphasis on physical resurrection. If the goal is to escape the material realm, why would one want to be physically resurrected? The Gnostics were the first within Christendom to teach that the resurrection involves not the body, but the soul—hence a spiritual resurrection. This is a theme that has been recycled and has found its way into modern liberal Christianity. It seems more than coincidental that in the history of the church the theological migration from a physical view of the resurrection to a spiritual view has been the exclusive domain of amillennialists.

 

         Of course, before we can conclusively establish a connection between Platonism, Gnosticism, and amillennialism, we must ask the question, “Was the Platonic and Gnostic influence in the second and third centuries sufficient to account for the church’s abandonment of premillennialism?  The answer to that question is, “Yes.” The fingerprints of Platonism and Gnosticism are on most of the theological disputation of that era. Valentinus, one of the most influential shapers of the Gnostic movement, was nominated to be the Bishop of Rome (c. A.D. 143) and only narrowly missed being elected. Even after his defeat he continued to exert significant influence both locally and abroad until his death sometime around A.D. 160. Many of the early church fathers like Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus argued powerfully against the Gnostics and eventually the church rejected Gnosticism in most of its forms. However, in the process of refuting the Gnostics, many of the apologists adopted the Greek philosophical mode of apologetics. (Perhaps they were trying to “fight fire with fire.”) This is most clearly illustrated in Clement of Alexandria and Origen. While the particulars of Gnostic doctrines were being refuted, the church was unwittingly buying into the same error that produced Gnosticism—the supplanting of biblical revelation by philosophy. In the end Gnosticism lost out, but the collision of Platonic ideas (from both philosophic and religious sources) with Christianity left a huge dent in the church—a decidedly Greek mindset which was both anti-cosmic, and sadly, anti-Jewish. That mindset, of which Augustine was the inheritor, undoubtedly affected not only the church’s attitude toward the nature of the kingdom of God, but also set the stage for asceticism, the monastic movement, and the anti-Semitism of the middle ages and beyond. The original biblical conception of the kingdom developed in the Old Testament had been for a physical (geopolitical) Jewish-centered kingdom with Messiah physically present to rule. Whether the church thought that such a quaint, and geopolictically local notion wouldn’t sell in the sophisticated Greek world, or whether the church simply bought into the Platonic attitude toward the material world is unclear; likely it was a combination of both, along with the growth of anti-Semitism. In any case, Christianity’s encounter with Greek thought redefined the faith in an indelible way that is still seen in the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, and Reformed faiths.

 

The pedigree of amillennialism

 

         Tracing the major movements of Platonic and Gnostic thought within the early (2nd – 5th century) church, we will begin with Philo, a Jewish philosopher and interpreter of the Old Testament who lived in the 1st century A.D. (c. 20 B.C. – c. A.D. 40). Philo was one of the first Jewish interpreters to make extensive use of allegorization in Old Testament interpretation (likely this was due to Stoic influence; the Stoics were noted for their allegorization of Greek mythic literature). Many early Christian interpreters were heavily influenced by Philo’s method of “spiritualization”—that is, interpreting a passage according to a supposed “spiritual” (i.e., supernatural) meaning (as opposed to the actual meaning of the statements). While not holding strictly to a Platonic cosmology, Philo’s cosmology was nonetheless heavily influenced by Platonism. Philo, while viewing God as the framer of ideas (and necessarily transcendent), viewed the material world as an expression of those ideas that existed more perfectly in the heavenly realm. While not strictly Platonic (the Platonists did not view God as transcendent), Philo’s concept of the nature of the creation and its relationship to the realm of ideas certainly shows the influence of Platonism, and may have served as the framework for early Gnosticism. Philo lived in Alexandria Egypt, and Alexandria was the epicenter of the revival of Greek philosophy in the first and second centuries A.D. It is probably not coincidental that Philo, Valentinus, Basilides, Clement, and Origin—five of the most influential figures that helped to ensconce allegorical and anti-cosmic interpretation in the Church (though Philo was not a Christian) all lived in Alexandria in the second century A.D., and there undoubtedly interacted with both Platonism and Stoicism. It is also probably not coincidental that the individuals in this string of figures, particularly Origen, were a major influence in the development of Augustine’s hermeneutics—and as we know, Augustine’s influence was the single greatest factor in the eventual adoption of amillennialism in the western church.

 

         Are there other connections between Platonism, Gnosticism, and the early church? Absolutely—however, it’s not always easy to determine on any particular issue whether Gnosticism was the principal influence, or whether the philosophical “soup” of the 1st through the 4th centuries simply affected both the church and Gnosticism to varying degrees. Undoubtedly both forces were at work; that is, it is likely that both philosophic Platonism and what might be termed “Christianized Platonism” (one form of which was Gnosticism) both exerted an influence on the church. Therefore rather than attempting to show causal connections, we will consider common threads between Platonism, Gnosticism, and early amillennialism. Consider the following. 1) The Gnostics denied any physical eschatological promises. To them eschatology was about escaping the physical realm; that is so say, they believed in a “personal realized eschatology” which was entirely spiritual; and they simply reinterpreted (via allegorization) any Scripture that did not fit their model.  Amillennialism, both historic and modern, is built on this same framework. 2) The Gnostics dismissed the centrality of the Jewish people and nation, believing them to be deceived by the Demiurge, and purveyors of false religion; thus they dismissed any promises to the Jewish people and nation made in the Old Testament. [This is clearly illustrated in the Gospel of Judas in which Jesus is seen to be laughing at the ignorance of the disciples, because they had been deceived by Jewish religion. In this mythic gospel, Judas is the only disciple who came to understand the truth about Jesus and his mission.] The dismissal of the centrality of the Jewish people and nation in eschatology was built on replacement theology, the origin of which is unclear, though it was undoubtedly very early. (The tendency toward this error was forcefully addressed by Paul in Romans chapter 11—adding support to the notion that this was a very early deviation from apostolic Christianity.) Replacement theology undoubtedly set the stage for amillennialism and for Christian anti-Semitism from the Middle Ages forward. Whether Gnosticism promoted anti-Semitism to the church broadly or was itself influenced by other forces that influenced the church, is unclear. However, one thing is clear: Gnosticism, amillennialism, anti-cosmic theology, replacement theology, and anti-Semitism all developed in the same religious/philosophical “soup” at the same time (i.e., the early post-apostolic era)—though it took longer for amillennialism to gain popularity in the western branch of the church.  3) The Gnostics reinterpreted the Old Testament (that is, the part they didn’t ignore) in light of the New Testament, which they had already reinterpreted in the light of their cultic literature—some of which is ironically now being referred to as “lost gospels,” implying a level of validity to these documents of which they are entirely unworthy. The re-interpretation of earlier writings on the basis of later writings has always been, and continues to be a core process in amillennial hermeneutics (which reverses the determinative/dependant relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament), and in this aspect Gnosticism and amillennialism have always been close cousins. (Again, see “How the Amillennial Conception of the Kingdom is Developed,” by the author). Amillennialists have always been insistent that the Old Testament must be re-interpreted in light of the New Testament, even if the normal (and obvious) meaning of the actual statements must be denied in order to do so. 4) The decline of premillennialism in the early church matches the expansion of Platonic influence in the church, both geographically and historically. The expansion of Gnosticism was from Alexandria Egypt, to Syrian Antioch, to Rome, then to the rest of the Empire. Amillennialism followed the same route, and as far as can be determined appeared at approximately the same times; thus, there is both a geographical and historical connection between the two. 5) With its emersion into the Greek world the church was under great pressure to repackage its fundamentally Jewish-centered message and to present a version of Christianity that would be palatable, even attractive to non-Jews. This pressure undoubtedly increased after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 with the dispersal of the Jewish people. The problem for the church of the 2nd through the 5th centuries was: How does one proclaim a Jewish-center religion with future promises of global Jewish ascendancy, to a Greek world that viewed itself as vastly superior to anything Jewish (particularly after the Jewish state had ceased to exist)? In the end, when faced with retaining its original message or morphing its theology into something more palatable to appeal to non-Jews, the church chose the later path. Unfortunately, the message of the Bible had to be “updated” to accommodate such a change, and allegorization was the best (an only) alternative to denying the received canon and rewriting scripture as the Gnostics had done (and which ultimately proved to be the Gnostics’ undoing). What happened in the early church in the 2nd through the 5th centuries can perhaps best be explained in terms of Hegel’s dialectic—with apostolic Christianity (which was premillennial) representing the thesis, Platonism and Gnosticism (both anti-cosmic and anti-Semitic) representing the antithesis, and amillennialism representing the synthesis.

 

         Anyone familiar with the kingdom promises of the Old Testament must confess that they were for a physical, earthly kingdom. The notion of a spiritual kingdom must be injected backwards from a particularly restrictive understanding (or rather, “misunderstanding”) of the New Testament gospels. (See, “The Biblical Basis of Premillennialism,” and “How the Amillennial Conception of the Kingdom is Developed,” by the author.) In fact, it seems to have been a particularly Gnostic trait to think of the relationship of the New Testament to the Old as analogous to that of the spiritual realm to the physical realm. In other words, to the Gnostics the Old Testament represented the theology of the physical realm (an inferior theology), whereas the New Testament represented the theology of the spirit realm (a superior theology). This is, of course, a low view of inspiration, and calls into question the inspiration of both the Old and New Testaments, since the inspiration of the New Testament is based on its connection to and consistency with the Old Testament. It is interesting that throughout the history of the church amillennialism has continued to ply this same error of reinterpreting (“spiritualizing”) the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. [There is a reason this practice is called “spiritualizing.” In spiritualization the “earth-bound” (local, cultural, geopolitical) statements of the Old Testament are reinterpreted in a higher, superior (universal, spiritual) form. This is fundamentally the same view of the relationship of the Old Testament to the New as seen in Gnosticism. The fact is that all forms of allegorization, whether Jewish or Christian, devalue the literature allegorized by implying that it is, at face value, conceptually inferior to the higher standard against which it is being reinterpreted. One might argue that the New Testament is superior to the Old; however, such an assessment would be difficult to sustain since virtually all of the key points of the New Testament were established by means of appeal to Old Testament authority, and logically that to which one appeals for validation cannot itself be dependant upon the thing being validated (a circular fallacy). In this case, the Old Testament is clearly determinative and the New Testament is clearly dependent. By what logic does one argue that a dependent proposition redefines a prior proposition upon which it depends for its own validity? This is, of course, a classic “boot-strapping” conundrum. Therefore the reinterpretation of the Old Testament by means of the New Testament is patently absurd. Of course, owing to the progressive nature of biblical revelation the New Testament does contain a more complete picture of the divine program than that contained within the Old Testament; however, the New Testament picture merely completes the picture given in the Old Testament—it does not replace or alter that picture as amillennialists incorrectly assert. While amillennialists have been intent on finding examples of allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament within the New Testament, they have been unable to point to even one example. The New Testament does make use of Old Testament material in constructing a pedagogical allegory in Galatians 4:21-31; however, the use of Old Testament material to construct an allegory for illustrative purposes, and the interpretation of Old Testament material allegorically are two entirely different things. The fact is, neither Christ, nor the New Testament writers ever interpreted the Old Testament allegorically.]

 

         There can be no doubt that the development of amillennial thought, particularly in Augustine, was influenced by the dualism of Platonism and Gnosticism. Augustine’s Platonic frame of reference is generally acknowledged. As Simone Pétrement states, both Origen and Augustine were “…profoundly influenced by Gnosticism and to a large extent incorporated it into their doctrines” (A Separate God: the Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism, p. 24). The denial of the doctrine of a literal, earthly millennial kingdom is not the result of the discovery of a superior revelation of truth in the New Testament leading to the true “spiritual” meaning (and reinterpretation) of the kingdom theology of the Old Testament; the denial of a literal, earthly millennium is largely the result of the infusion of pagan anti-cosmic, and anti-Jewish worldviews that crept into the church in the early centuries of its theological development, and has now been codified in Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, and Reformed theology. In the western church, this was largely due to the influence of Augustine—who adopted many of the core interpretations and key hermeneutical principles of Tichonius—a North African Donatist who was the first to present an entirely allegorical interpretation of the book of Revelation. (Tichonius’ principles of hermeneutics are presented in Augustine’s City of God.)

 

         Of course in speaking of Augustine, we must keep in mind the political-religious context. Augustine’s City of God was written as a defense of Christianity after the sacking of Rome (which occurred in A.D. 410). Had Augustine then taken a premillennial stance, he would have exacerbated Roman criticism of Christianity (by implying that Christ would eventually overthrow even Rome in the establishment of his kingdom). Such an idea would hardly have accomplished what Augustine desired in his attempt to conciliate Romans to a more favorable view of Christianity. While Platonism, Gnosticism, and replacement theology provided the philosophical and theological “soup” in which amillennialism could develop, it was likely a combination of several factors that led to the codification of amillennialism in the early church—the early acceptance of replacement theology, the general acceptance of philosophical apologetics and theology, the influence of Platonism, the desire to make the Scriptures palatable to skeptical and philosophically minded Greeks, a growing acceptance of anti-cosmic dualism within the church, and concern over the negative criticism that likely would have resulted from taking a premillennial stance.

        

Summary

 

         It is important to recognize that amillennialism does not represent the biblical view of the kingdom (if by “biblical” we mean what the Bible actually says). It certainly was not the view of any biblical writer who is allowed to speak for himself without having his words distorted (or blatantly contradicted) by allegorical interpretation. The biblical view can only be characterized as “premillennial”—with Christ establishing his kingdom on earth at his return. Amillennialism is the result of taking an originally and fundamentally Jewish kingdom theology, melting it down by denying its actual statements, and recasting it in a Platonic mold in which the centrality of the Jewish people and nation in the eschatological kingdom is denied through the means of allegorical reinterpretation (which is nothing more than a denial of the actual statements of Scripture). 

 

         The difficulty is that since amillennialism has been ensconced in the church, both Catholic and Protestant, for over fifteen hundred years, most theologians believe that in defending amillennialism they are defending the truth. Indeed they are defending the “orthodox” position, insofar as orthodoxy means, the “accepted” view. But the question shouldn’t be: “Is it orthodox?” The question ought to be: “Is it biblical?” And that question can best be answered by asking another question: “Can it be shown that any biblical author, according to his own intent, taught that the kingdom is entirely spiritual (or heavenly)?” The answer to that question is a resounding, “No”—that’s why amillennialists, like the Gnostics before them, are forced to allegorize future prophecy.  The fact that Jesus spoke of an immanent kingdom (spiritually present) does not deny the physical aspect of the kingdom so well established from the Old Testament and reaffirmed in the last book of the New Testament (in spite of recapitulation interpretation of Revelation, which represents incredibly inept exegesis—concerning which, again see “How the Amillennial Conception of the Kingdom is Developed,” by the author). Anyone who gives serious consideration to the kingdom promises must realize that a physical kingdom must be preceded by spiritual renewal (a spiritual precursory aspect of the kingdom), else who would inherit such a kingdom—the unredeemed and unregenerated? Perhaps the problem is that for too long the church has thought antithetically (i.e., if the kingdom is spiritual, it cannot be physical), rather than synthetically (i.e., the kingdom obviously has spiritual and physical dimensions, which are non-contradictory). Of course another piece of the puzzle is anti-Semitism. Until the church is willing to see the Jewish nation as preeminent in the kingdom, it can never acknowledge premillennialism as the teaching of the Bible—and I suspect this is more of a factor in the ongoing insistence on amillennialism than anyone cares to admit.

 

[The papers by the author cited here are available without cost from The Biblical Reader at www.biblicalreader.com.]

 

 

 

Copyright 2006, by Sam A. Smith / Biblical Reader Communications

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The Non-Christian and Anti-cosmic Roots of Amillennialism

Originally published January 2006, and updated August 2007

Available at: www.BiblicalReader.com